Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hits, fumbles and questionable calls

The current legislative sitting is finally over and Team Selinger took it on the chin

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Premier Greg Selinger's team took it on the chin during the marathon spring sitting of the legislature, which ended Friday evening instead of mid-June as scheduled.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Premier Greg Selinger's team took it on the chin during the marathon spring sitting of the legislature, which ended Friday evening instead of mid-June as scheduled. Photo Store

That sound coming from underneath the Golden Boy?

It's a collective sigh.

MLAs on both sides of the house couldn't wait to put the legislature in the rear-view mirror on Friday. They are a tired bunch. A few are angry, even bitter, at how things turned out.

And while Opposition Leader Brian Pallister claims a victory for holding the NDP's feet to fire over the PST hike, and the governing NDP claims the moral high ground with the legislation that was passed, the truth is somewhere between.

Most of the NDP's legislative agenda was either put on the back burner until MLAs return in November or watered down to appease the angry mob.

What did happen is that the New Democrats, once said to be coated in a layer of Teflon so thick that nothing stuck, don't look so mighty anymore, even with their 18-seat majority.

At the hands of Pallister and his Progressive Conservatives, Premier Greg Selinger, his cabinet and his backbench MLAs took a drubbing, not unlike the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this season. Sure, the NDP scored a few points -- they did get Bill 18, their anti-bullying bill, passed -- but when it mattered, they got sacked.

How did it go so wrong and how do they recover?

 

BILL 20 AND THE PST HIKE

Selinger passed the ball to Finance Minister Stan Struthers and he fumbled it on this one. No one bought the pitch that money raised through the tax -- the one-point increase to eight per cent -- would go towards infrastructure, especially when the NDP broadened the definition of critical infrastructure to now include basketball courts, skating rinks and playgrounds.

The other big hit against the NDP is that the tax increase took effect July 1, but Bill 20, the enabling legislation to increase the tax without a referendum, did not pass this sitting and was put over to November.

It will pass eventually, but not before the Tories draw more blood.

 

BILL 33 AND MUNICIPAL AMALGAMATION

LOCAL GOVERNMENT MINISTER RON LEMIEUX CAME OUT SWINGING LIKE WALKING TALL'S BUFORD PUSSER: Carry a big stick and ask questions later. But the little towns and municipalities didn't back down. When Lemieux told them they'd better hitch up to their bigger neighbours or else, they knocked him off his horse. To make Bill 33 more palatable to the Opposition, and get some semblance of it passed, Lemieux had to water it down. He did that by excluding the noisiest of Bill 33's critics, the renegade communities of Victoria Beach and Dunnottar, from being forced to amalgamate with their bigger neighbours. It's no coincidence that Gimli NDP MLA Peter Bjornson, who sits at the cabinet table as Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade minister, had some influence in the change. Dunnottar is in his riding and the NDP wants to retain that seat.

 

HEALTH: It's the biggest chunk of the budget and traditionally the NDP's baby. But for how long? Brian Sinclair's ghost still haunts the health-care system five years after he died in a city emergency room after waiting 34 hours for a treatable bladder infection. The inquest into his death continues next month and will again put the issue on the front pages. Wait times continue to be unacceptably high for hip and knee replacements. And ambulances sit for an inordinate amount of time to unload patients at city hospitals. Meanwhile, the Selinger government must still make good -- it claims to have already made considerable progress -- on the NDP's 2011 election promise to hire 200 more physicians and 2,000 nurses by 2015.

 

DEFICIT: This is the noose around the NDP's neck. Almost a year ago, Selinger surprised no one when he said his government will need two more years than promised to balance the province's books. The target for getting Manitoba out of the red is now the 2016-17 fiscal year. In the next couple of weeks, we'll see just how well the NDP is sticking to its 2016-17 promise. That's when the province delivers its first-quarter financial report for 2013-14 and the latest economic outlook. The first will show how well the NDP has reined in spending -- or not, and how well the province is performing -- or not. In April, Struthers projected Manitoba would incur an operating shortfall of $518 million this year.

 

CABINET SHUFFLE: The Selinger government rolled the dice on budget day, betting that Manitobans could stomach a percentage-point hike in the PST if the NDP could sell them on all the good things such an increase would bring. In fact, New Democrats were told by the premier's chief of staff at their annual convention this spring the party would fight the next provincial election on the PST hike. (Tories everywhere no doubt chortled at that.) So far, the government has done a woeful job of selling the hike. And much of the responsibility for that rests with the finance minister. It was in Struthers' budget that the PST boost was unveiled, and he has been ineffective in articulating its merits, rarely straying from carefully scripted talking points. The two-month hiatus until the house sits again Nov. 12 gives Selinger time to consider a mid-term cabinet shuffle -- and a new point person to sell the government's tax-and-spend policies. Might Theresa Oswald, after seven years in the health portfolio, be given the task of selling the hike -- and pulling in government spending? If so, who would inherit the huge, politically demanding health file? Jennifer Howard? Selinger would also be wise to bring in new blood at this stage. Do longtime party stalwarts such as Dave Chomiak, Gord Mackintosh and Eric Robinson plan to run again in spring 2016? If not, may one or more be replaced by a younger backbencher, say Fort Garry-Riverview MLA James Allum? Will Kevin Chief be promoted and the small portfolio of Children and Youth Opportunities created for him folded back into other existing departments?

 

WHITHER SELINGER? The NDP has been in power since October 1999. By the time the next general election rolls around, likely in April 2016, New Democrats will have ruled on Broadway for close to 17 years. Selinger will be 65 by then. He will have been premier for six-and-a-half years -- and one of the main faces of government from the beginning. In recent months, the party's popularity has tumbled in the polls. In provinces such as Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia, where long-standing governments have seen their popularity plummet, the ruling parties have renewed or attempted to renew themselves by electing a woman as their new leader. Might that happen here? It's unlikely. Selinger is stubborn and will fight to the end.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A6

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